Success, Belief, and Identity

Esther Derby cites this article:

HBS Working Knowledge: Leadership: When Bad Ideas Won't Die. Why do smart companies put so much energy into doomed products? University of Paris-based Isabelle Royer tackles this thorny issue in this excerpt from Harvard Business Review. By profiling two French companies' experiences with failed projects, Royer gets at some surprising answers: Belief and faith triumph over reason. Mar. 31, 2003 Issue.

I'm not surprised by Royer's answers. I know how important my beliefs are to me. They help me stay safe. They help me make reasonable guesses about how to accomplish my goals. What would life be like without beliefs? What if I couldn't believe, for example, that the walls of my house will stay up? Or that my car will start when I turn the key?

My beliefs are important to me, especially the beliefs that I've tangled up with my identity, my image of myself as competent, safe, and good. For example, suppose I've tied my sense of competence to the success of my project, so that project failure "means" that I'm incompetent. For now, let's not worry about why I would do such a thing. Just suppose I've done it. Now: having given such significance to project success, I may have a hard time letting go of my belief that the project is succeeding.

Given my experience with my own beliefs, and with the inordinate significance that I sometimes give to my beliefs, I'm not surprised that belief and faith have tremendous influence over projects.

The trouble, of course, is that some of my beliefs are wrong. An even bigger trouble is that I don't know which beliefs are right and which are wrong. How can I tell the difference?

For me, the trickiest step is to notice the belief. Once I've made a belief explicit, I have an opportunity to explore it in the glaring light of reason (and in the softer light of my other beliefs). How can I notice my beliefs?

One way is to pay attention when I'm estimating. Whenever I estimate something—for example, how long a task will take— I base my estimate on beliefs and assumptions about the task. "Charlie will finish his code on Wednesday. UPS will deliver the pick-axe on Thursday morning. Shiela's cold will be gone by Friday, so she can return to work." Every time I make an estimate, I create an opportunity to notice some of my beliefs and assumptions. And if I work with others to create the estimate, I can ask about their beliefs and assumptions and compare them to my own. A team based method for estimating tasks and projects, such as Wideband Delphi, is a wonderful source of information about beliefs and assumptions.

Another source of information is surprise. I learned this recently from Margaret J. Wheatley's wonderful book Turning to One Another . On page 36, Wheatley says:

Noticing what surprises and disturbs me has been a very useful way to see invisible beliefs. If what you say surprises me, I must have been assuming something else was true. If what you say disturbs me, I must believe something contrary to you. My shock at your position exposes my own position. [...] If I can see my beliefs and assumptions, I can decide whether I still value them. [...] Listen as best you can for what's different, for what surprises you. See if this practice helps you learn something new.

Finally, another way to notice my beliefs is to catch myself saying, "I'm not surprised." This phrase is not merely "lullaby language," It is in a particular class of lullaby language—those phrases that, when I say them, mean exactly the opposite of what they seem to say. Other examples are "no problem" and "obviously." When I say "no problem," you can bet that I have a problem. When I say "obviously," you can bet that what follows is not obvious (and possibly not true). When I say "I'm not surprised," you can bet that I am surprised.

Now that I've written these phrases down, I can see that they each indicate that I am fooling myself in order to hold onto some cherished, identity-preserving belief. If I notice that I'm saying one of these phrases, I can stop, take a breath, and take a closer look at the belief I'm trying to avoid seeing.

What do you believe?

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